Back in 2003 Consumer WebWatch did an ethnographic study and published their results in a report titled “False Oracles: Consumer Reaction to Learning the Truth About How Search Engines Work”. There are several findings that I think are worth mentioning . . .
The basic structure of the study was as follows: There were 17 participants from around the country, of varying income levels, ages and sex. Most of them had 5 years and more of experience on the net (remember this was 2003). They were asked questions before and after using 15 pre-selected search engines (about.com, alltheweb.com, aol.com, ask.com, yahoo.com, google.com, iwon.com, kanoodle.com, looksmart.com, msn.com, overture.com, infospace.com). None of the participants new anything about paid search results).
There are several findings that I think are worth mentioning.
First – “most participants had little understanding of how search engines retrieve Web pages or how they rank or prioritize links on a results page”. I think that this translates into most small-business owners (several participants owned their own businesses), and any number of regular internet users have no idea how the search ranking works. Wide open market!!!
Second – “majority of participants never clicked beyond the first page of search results” and “not one participant went beyond the fifth delivered page”. – This is nothing new, we all pretty much know this already just based on our own behavior. In fact “88 percent of the result links selected were located on the first page”. Showing how important it truly is to get onto the first page. This was further emphasized by respondents “perception” that the first page always contains the most relevant/important or most visited sites. This is emphasized by the participants lack of knowledge of paid results being part of the “organic” search results.
Third – “two-in-five links (or 41%) selected by our participants…were paid search results”. The study attributes this to the fact that the participants “trusted search engines to present only the best or most accurate, unbiased results on the first page”. And once the participants found out that this was not true – that some of the links were sponsored or paid links they often grew a bit more distrustful of the search engine results. However they did not necessarily change the search engine that they used. What they did do is pay more attention to the results displayed on the page.
Fourth – “Search engine sites that were perceived to be less transparent about these related disclosures lost credibility amongst the group” – This is something that I think is critical. I explored all of the fifteen search engine sites that they studied. A couple of them had been bought out or closed down. Several of the others used the technology of either Yahoo, Google or Ask.com to drive their search results. Also, several of the sites had a horrible way of displaying the results. Several of the sites don’t clearly break the “sponsored links” out from the “organic results”.
However, brand trust is critical to the survival of a search engine. How many consumers really do a side by side comparison of results on Google vs Yahoo vs MSN etc? Not many! In other words people turn to the search engine they trust. After all we ask search engines lots of intimate and personal questions that we would not ask anyone else. Trust is central. I mentioned this in an earlier post Manage the Brand: Google! on this blog. The loss of trust and perceived accuracy of search results is, in my opinion, a danger facing all search engine sites. This is illuminated in this report by the reactions of several of the participants whose reactions bordered on dismay.
In the end what I got from this study is that the most powerful tool is still “organic SEO”. Get your site up the “organic search results” because this will be a longer lasting result. Not only will you come up for more relevant searches (several of the participants complained about how the sponsored links were often irrelevant or completely out in right field), but you will not have to worry about paying every time someone comes to visit you.
This report was written 4 years ago and in the world of online advertising this is a LONG time. It leaves me with several questions.
1) Have search engine users become more savvy and click on “sponsored” links less frequently, or at least intentionally?
2) The majority of search engine users utilize Google, Yahoo & MSN which display their sponsored vs organic searches clearly and therefore are less confusing then several other search engines. Are users of these engines more aware of the “sponsored” links and how to determine one from the other?
3) What percentage of users of the popular search engines click on paid links? According to the report 41% of links clicked were sponsored but these results included searches on sites like kannoodle.com which is a “paid links only” search engine, as are several others.
Either way it is clear that being on the first page – paid or unpaid – is where you want to be.